We must avoid PPE plastics disaster
Almost one year on from the UK’s first lockdown, a research study has quantified the unprecedented plastic problem arising from the COVID-19 outbreak. A huge increase in PPE usage has been seen across the globe, and bans on single-use plastics were suspended in many places as fear of the virus spread. Masks have been seen washing up on beaches ever since, but new research has made the pandemic’s footprint even clearer.
A study published last week used data on individual countries’ population size and their urban population’s facemask acceptance rate to estimate the amount of plastic waste generated as masks are thrown away. They found that, worldwide, 1.6 million tonnes of plastic waste has been produced every day since the COVID-19 outbreak, marking a reversal of the previously established global trend towards reduced plastic waste.
The researchers estimate that 3.4 billion single-use face masks and shields are now binned every day, which is equivalent in mass to over 30 Titanic ships. This greatly exceeds the World Health Organization’s initial prediction that 89 million masks would be required per month. So, what are the environmental costs of this?
Most masks/shields, gloves, protective aprons and glasses, sanitiser containers, and medical shoes and gowns are made from materials incorporating microplastics. These enter the terrestrial environment if waste is not properly managed, and it is unlikely they will stay on land. Around 80% of global ocean plastics arise from terrestrial sources, and these put marine organisms at risk of entanglement and ingestion-related injuries. In addition, these plastics could go on to cause health problems for us humans. Counterproductively, ocean microplastics can serve as vectors of human pathogens, though how much of a threat this poses is still under investigation.
PPE has been pivotal in protecting people from the virus, but even where it is disposed of correctly by the wearer, most still ends up in landfill or gets burnt. As the vaccine is rolled out, more plastic waste in the form of vials and syringes is to be expected. What is the solution? The researchers call for a ramp up in waste management innovation, as well as suggesting a return to re-usable surgical gowns (which the US FDA also endorsed). Other researchers have recommended decoupling PPE from fossil fuel-based resources entirely, encouraging an accelerated move towards an economy reliant on renewable energy.
As consumers, we also have some power. We can support the people making re-usable masks from environmentally-kind materials; we can wash our reusable shopping bags instead of resorting to single-use ones, and we can thank those able to get out and clean up our oceans and beaches. One Cornwall charity even used marine litter to make beach cleaning stations.
Article written by Jessie May-Green
Here at Catalyst, we’re watching how our client Greenpeace is fighting hard to stop oil giants and the plastic industry from exploiting the coronavirus pandemic and whipping up fear to stem the tide of protests against plastic. Of course, public safety comes first, but we must act now to ensure that COVID-19 doesn’t reverse the momentum of a years-long global battle to reduce plastic waste pollution.
Managing Director, Catalyst.
11th March 2021